When Caring Goes Wrong: Rehoming Unowned Dogs

By Marie Fox

Those of us who share our lives with dogs know that interspecies relationships are an important and mutually enriching basis for caring practices, yet it is also evident that dogs are often victims of a complete lack of care. These extremes of care are vividly captured in the contrast between the casual cruelty of the 27 year old trainee solicitor sentenced to 18 weeks in prison last month for leaving her boxer dog to starve in a locked kitchen, and the tenacity with which homeless people cling to their relationship with their dogs notwithstanding the difficulties this may pose to them in finding a home. Paradoxical attitudes also characterise media responses to dogs. At the same time that television programmes celebrate The Wonder of Dogs, newspaper reports disproportionately depict dogs as out of control weapons or feral killers. In a familiar litany of reporting of dog attacks on humans, common features are a focus on breed, a desire to impose responsibility and a failure to address the root causes of our problematic relationship with dogs. Over the last few months this is evident in accounts in February 2014 of dog attacks in Blackburn, where an eleven month old girl, Ava-Jane Corless, was savaged as she slept in her bed by an American pit bull type dog owned by her mother’s boyfriend, in Carmarthenshire where Eliza-Mae Mullane, a six day old girl, died having being pulled from her pram and bitten by her family’s Alaskan Malamute who had been acquired from someone in a pub, and in Lincolnshire where in March another pit bull type attacked a 22 year old woman walking near an old quarry.

Malamutes and bull breeds figure disproportionately amongst the sheer numbers of unwanted dogs that are stretching the resources of local authorities, charities and dog rescues. The 2013 Annual Stray Dogs Survey by Dogs Trust reveals that 111,986 stray and abandoned dogs were picked up across the UK over the last 12 months, equating to 307 stray dogs being found every day. Many are bull breeds, victims of a process of media stereotyping fuelled by the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act which in categorising pit bull terriers as dangerous dogs, has served to make all bull breeds perversely attractive to the wrong sort of owner. One particularly tragic case highlights the potential for well intentioned and caring actions to go wrong in the world of dog rescue. In November 2013 four year old Lexi Branson died after being mauled by her family’s dog Mulan. According to newspaper reports Lexi’s mother, Jody Hudson, fatally stabbed the dog in a frantic attempt to save her daughter when he attacked her on the floor of the lounge in their flat. It transpired that Mulan was an American bulldog type who had been adopted by Lexi’s mother in August 2013 from a Leicestershire rehoming centre. The rehoming reportedly took place after she had seen a picture of the dog in the rehoming section of the rescue’s facebook page. A friend of Ms Hudson reported that the dog had a soft nature and that Ms Hudson had been told he was safe around children. The rescue declined to comment. In the absence of all the facts it is important not to judge actions, as anyone involved in dog rescue will testify.

I volunteer with one of the many small dog rescues struggling to cope with Britain’s unwanted dogs. We work closely with a local authority pound in the North West of England to provide emergency kennel space for dogs who have not been reclaimed, rehomed or offered a rescue space within seven days. At this point they can lawfully be humanely destroyed under s 149 Environmental Protection Act 1990. A key aim of organisations like ours is to place our dogs with bigger and better resourced rescues. However, typically, due to their fear of being overrun with too many unwanted breeds, it falls to smaller rescues to rehome bull breeds – mostly Staffordshire Bull Terrier crosses. We homecheck for our dogs as carefully as possible, requiring prospective owners to complete forms, submit to a home visit, visit the dog in kennels and ensure that dogs are neutered and vaccinated prior to rehoming while dogs are not placed in a home with children under 10 years old. However a consequence of such conditions is that we lose out on good potential homes and in many cases prospective adopters will simply buy a puppy or adopt from a rescue too stretched to impose such conditions. And notwithstanding the care taken and great joy of waving a dog off to a new home, the process is inevitably accompanied with apprehension that things may go wrong, given the difficulties of adequately assessing dogs in a kennel environment.

However in the absence of the full story in most of these cases there are nevertheless a number of conclusions we can draw about media reporting and the reaction it has provoked which serve to highlight our flawed thinking about dogs. Initial media reports of the Branson case pictured Lexi with her uncle’s Dogue de Bordeaux who was erroneously deemed responsible for the attack and wrongly described as a French mastiff. The upshot was that breed specific rescues were reported in dogworld as having been inundated with calls from concerned owners wishing to give up their dogs. When pictures of Mulan were published, the immediate response of bull dog rescues was to deny that Mulan was a ‘British bulldog’, with an editorial in dogworld opining that “After some initial confusion, the dog responsible for this incident is now referred to as a bulldog even though it bears little resemblance to the pedigree Bulldogs bred in this country.” Such responses strike me as reflecting the manifold failures of social attitudes including UK law which casts dogs as disposable commodities and indiscriminately stigmatises certain dogs purely on the basis of their morphology or breed type. Media narratives which reify this focus on breed, and implicitly criticise the irresponsibility of a mother in choosing to allow into her home a dog of uncertain pedigree and origin, or rescues which somehow failed in an ill-defined area, obscure the root causes of indiscriminate breeding which produces unhealthy or ill socialised puppies, dangerous dogs legislation which has compounded the problems of unwanted and often traumatised bull breeds and a legal strategy of ascribing responsibility for stray and unwanted dogs to local authorities which are already struggling to fulfill their core responsibilities and are ill equipped to cope with the complexities of dealing with stray and dangerous dogs. Against this backdrop blaming a mother for her caring action in adopting a dog in need of a home, a not for profit organization struggling to fill the gaps in state provision or even the dog himself is manifestly ill conceived. Until our outdated and paradoxical legal attitudes to dogs are tackled, tragedies such as these unfortunately seem unavoidable, however much well intentioned individuals and dog rescues strive to care.

Rethinking the Care Needs of Older Homeless People

by Rachel Barken and Amanda Grenier

The care needs of older adults experiencing physical and cognitive decline generate much attention in political, popular, and academic debates. Yet, particular subgroups of the older population are often overlooked. Such is the case for older homeless people, whose numbers are increasing across Canada and internationally. Older homelessness is also largely invisible in academic study, although interest is beginning to turn in this direction. Few gerontological works focus on homelessness, and studies on homelessness are often organized around earlier parts of the life course (Crane & Warnes, 2005; McDonald, Dergal, & Cleghorn, 2007). As a result, we know little about older homeless adults’ needs for care.

Our research project, “Homelessness in Late life: Growing Old on the Streets, in Shelters, and Long-term Care” explores the challenges older homelessness brings for aging societies as a whole and for service providers working in housing, shelter and long-term care. It involves a critical policy analysis; qualitative interviews with service providers and older homeless people; and participant observation in homeless shelters in Montreal, Quebec. This blog reports preliminary results from interviews with 15 service providers working with older homeless people. Interviews revealed three findings relevant to the challenges and contradictions of later life homelessness: (1) the need to adapt current approaches to homelessness to better accommodate older people, (2) the need to develop and sustain affordable housing across the life course, and (3) the inherent emotional conflicts and contradictions associated with homelessness in late life.

First, homelessness tends to be approached as a rupture in the life course requiring an emergency response. Support services are often provided in reaction to a fixed event, with the aim of reconnecting people with work or housing.  Interviews with service providers, though, reveal that older homelessness is often the result of marginal and precarious positions over time. The combined implications of social marginalization and older age means that traditional solutions based on work and housing are less able to ‘fix’ the problem of older homelessness. A deeper understanding of the interconnected individual and structural forces leading to later life homelessness is necessary.

Second, older people are caught between various housing and long-term care models. Housing options for older homeless adults in Canada include affordable housing units, alternative housing models, emergency shelters, and residential and long-term care facilities. Yet there is often a disjuncture between housing policies and practices on the one hand, and older homeless adults’ experiences, needs, and abilities on the other. Older people may need to compete against younger groups for subsidised housing. Pensions provide a certain level of income, but this does not address the shortage in supported housing options. Add to this that shelters or rooming houses are not intended as spaces to grow old. They are not adapted to changes in mobility and certainly do not qualify as ‘home’. Long-term care is also often inaccessible to older homeless people. They either cannot afford long-term care, or their needs cannot easily be accommodated in institutional environments.

Our third finding is perhaps most interesting to the debates circulating on this blog. Although workers do not necessarily name it as such, their interviews convey emotional, moral, and ethical conflicts around service priorities, personal associations, and expectations of aging. Their comments that one is ‘not expected to be homeless in later life’ poignantly articulate the conflicts that they experience with regards to aging and marginalisation and a profound helplessness given the lack of service options available for older homeless people.

In sum, homelessness rarely figures in to discussions of later life care. This leaves us with few directives when attempting to care for older homelessness people. We suggest that a life course perspective could be fruitfully applied to understand major pathways into homelessness, particularly risk factors and trigger events, and their prevalence across the life course. With this in place, it is necessary to design housing and care options that suit older homeless people’s diverse needs, abilities, and interests. Finally, it is urgent for discussions of later life care to address the realities of homelessness in particular, and social marginalization more generally. Our project, grounded in empirical data, seeks to generate knowledge that will enable policymakers and practitioners to account for homelessness in their responses to later life care.

References:

Crane, M., & Warnes, A. (2005). Responding to the needs of older homeless people.         Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 18(2), 137-152.

McDonald, L., Dergal, J., & Cleghorn, L. (2007). Living on the margins: Older homeless    adults in Toronto. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 49(1-2), 19-46.

* The results discussed in this blog are part of an ongoing study being carried out at the Old Brewery Mission in Montreal, and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada: Homelessness in Late Life: Growing Old on the Streets, in Shelters and Long-term Care: Amanda Grenier (PI), Tamara Sussman, David Rothwell and Jean-Pierre Lavoie.

Amanda Grenier, PhD, is Director of the Gilbrea Centre for the Studies of Aging, Gilbrea Chair in Aging and Mental Health, and Associate Professor in Health, Aging and Society at McMaster University, Canada.

Rachel Barken is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at McMaster University and Research Assistant on the Homelessness in Late Life research project.

Spaces of Care – the banning of soup kitchens

There is an extensive literature on “spaces of care” i.e. “socio-spatial field[s] disclosed through practices of care that take place between individuals” (Conradson, 2003; 508). Such spaces can be found in a range of settings: care homes for the elderly, day centres for the homeless, hospitals.

I have been grappling for some time without making much progress (those at the ReValuing Care conference in Adelaide will recognise these concerns from my paper there) with the treatment of a particular space of care – the soup kitchen. My reason for this interest was prompted by the attempts made by Westminster City Council in 2011 to outlaw soup kitchens in an area of London around Westminster Cathedral close to Victoria station.

One of the distinguishing features of the soup kitchen is that the space of care is an outdoor public space. This means that they are often viewed negatively by both local residents and local authorities. At the Adelaide conference I asked three questions which I would still welcome any help or suggestions in answering.

The first question relates to the nature of care offered by a soup kitchen. In an era where charitable and not for profit organisations are increasingly incorporated into the delivery of state care there is a view that “support agencies are increasingly accepting of the use of enforcement in some circumstances, in a desperate attempt to improve the quality of life of their clients and reduce any negative impact their activities might have on other people if/when all other approaches have failed” (Johnsen and Fitzpatrick, 2010; 1717).

By contrast providers of soup kitchens tend to fall outside the corporatist contracting mode of delivery of services. They are often provided by faith groups “attempting to articulate a theo-ethical sense of agape and caritas, a genuine openness to and an outpouring of unconditional love towards the other” (Cloke et al 2010; 99). In this “[s]oup runs tend to be noninterventionist, accepting of difference, and aim to bestow upon individuals the dignity to just ‘be’ without demanding anything in return” (Johnsen et al 2005; 329). This puts them very much at odds with government policy.

So my first question is whether we should distinguish between these two forms of care? What, if anything, is special about care which is delivered by non-professionals who are not demanding change from the recipient?

However, even if we see a positive in this rejection of a coercive form of care, can the soup kitchen do more than offer a compassionate but “ultimately degrading construal of the homeless as helpless victims” (Feldman, 2004; 92). Given its delivery of food in an outdoor setting does the soup kitchen do no more than simply help keep the homeless alive or does the “outpouring of unconditional love” referred to above provide something worthwhile in and of itself?

Finally, my last question relates to the long history of the soup kitchen which have been with us since the middle ages. Westminster’s attempts to outlaw soup kitchens were ultimately put on hold. But in an age of ever increasing control of public space why does the soup kitchen prove so resilient?

Professor Caroline Hunter, York Law School, University of York

caroline.hunter@york.ac.uk

References

Cloke P, May J. and Johnsen S. (2010) Swept up lives: Re-envisioning the homeless city Chichester: Wiley­Blackwell

Conradson D. (2004) Spaces of care in the city: the place of a community drop-in centre, Social & Cultural Geography, 4:4, 507-525

Feldman L.C. (2004) Citizens without shelter: homelessness, democracy and political exclusion Ithica: Cornell University Press

Johnsen S., Cloke P. and May J. (2005) “Transitory spaces of care: serving homeless people on the street” Health & Place 11, 323-336

Johnsen S. and Fitzpatrick S. (2010) “Revanchist Sanitisation or Coercive Care? The Use of Enforcement to Combat Begging, Street Drinking and Rough Sleeping in England” Urban Studies 47(8), 1703-1723